Category Archives: Adventures Europe 2013


Our journey by train from Cinque Terre was rather uneventful.  The only exception was that we arrived at the French border thirty minutes after our connection to Nice had left the station.  For a moment I thought that a slight oversight on my part in the same location thirty years previous, had come back to haunt me.  On that occasion the Italian conductor wanted a king’s ransom, my passport, and quite possibly my crown jewels on the basis that I had neglected to get my ticket stamped.  He got nothing.

On this occasion, the Italian conductor was most helpful and we were soon on our way to Nice.  By the way, Nice was Nice.  I just had to get that in.

The train journey up to St Andre Les Alpes, and the commencement of our walk was also uneventful, except for the start.  I always like it when we get allocated seats.  In that way, Karyn doesn’t have a choice.  When seats are not allocated, she likes to move around a bit and try a few out before finally getting settled.  It is just a good thing that I am not inclined to excesses with strong drink.

The train was small, the platform crowded and the passengers were in their starting blocks.  Seats were up for grabs.  I suggested to Karyn that it would be a good idea to make our choice of seats quickly, and then stick with it.  Otherwise we could be on our feet for the whole journey.

We boarded the train, stowed our large packs in the appropriate compartment, grabbed two seats and temporarily placed our small backpacks on the two seats opposite.  I was settled.  I then turned and Karyn had done a runner.  She was up the front of the train and was busy trying out another seat.  I was left with two back packs on two seats and an empty one beside me.  Experience has taught me to wait a bit before moving house, just in case there was another change in plan.

Right at this point the conductor arrived and he let loose.  I thought he was going to want a king’s ransom, my passport and very definitely my crown jewels.  Before he had the opportunity to go for the knife, I was up and away with back packs trailing behind.  Once finally settled, I told Karyn what a joy she was to travel with.  Well something like that anyway.

The first day of our walk was from St Andre Les Alpes to Castellane.  We were hiking by ourselves and depended on some travelling notes, signs on the track, a map, a watch to time distances between way points, and a compass.  We didn’t get lost.

Two things caught my attention.  The first was a warning in our notes not to touch the electric fencing used extensively throughout the area.  That is of course, and I quote “unless you are wearing asbestos underwear”.  Having neglected to include a pair when packing for the trip, I stayed well clear of the potential attack on the unmentionables again.

The second was a sign on a tree warning about the big dogs that protect the sheep out in the fields.  It suggested that if approached, one should stand perfectly still, so that the dog can sus you out.  It was much the same advice as given in Canada to warn about bears.  I am afraid that I felt no comfort in either of these messages.  We certainly heard some dogs, saw them in the distance, but thankfully they were never close enough to test out the theory.

Further along the track on the first day we arrived at a place called Mandarom.  It had lots of 10 metre high silver structures, like spikey hollow dumbbells, that marked the boundary of the complex.  It is apparently a strange religious group that incorporates and displays symbols from various different religions.  Some of the statues were enormous.  The notes suggested, and I quote again “We don’t recommend that you accept an invitation to visit the centre in case you are tempted to stay too long and MISS THE REST OF YOUR LIFE”.  Now there is a warning that could well be applied to a much broader range of religious locations.

And so it went on.  Every day, after Karyn did her hunting and gathering for sustenance, we would head off with our small back packs, and walk for 6-7 hours.  However, choosing an appropriate spot for lunch was often as challenging as getting a seat on a train.  I will say no more.  In the evening, we would arrive at our designated hotel, pick up our large back packs and settle in for the night.  It was just wonderful.

One of the best days was day three.  On this occasion we were to traverse much of the Grand Canyon du Verdon.  It is the deepest in the whole of Europe, where the cliffs can reach as high as 700 metres.  Apart from hiking, it is an absolute mecca for climbing.  There are lots of metal ladders and stairs as well as tunnels through the rock to enable the many walkers to travel through this amazing location.  By the way, we found that the tunnels were as black as a bats ass when the once trusty torch failed to ignite.

The sound of a helicopter in the canyon was initially greeted with some disdain, as we thought it was just another tourist venture spoiling the tranquillity of our day.  And then we saw it hover and lower a rope down the side of a cliff.  One by one, a total of ten tiny specks of climbers were snatched from the sheer rock face.  Some in stretchers some not.  From their height, it was obvious that they had been stranded all night.  I tried to think of an appropriate word to describe what I was witnessing.  Apart from the SKILL and BRAVERY in relation to the chopper pilot, the other had five letters and started with C and finished with Y.

After several days of constant ascending and descending and travelling through some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable, we finally cleared the Alps and were out into the rolling hills of Provence.  It also coincided with a marked increase in temperature.  The long stretches over dirt tracks finally started to take their toll and I ended up with blistered feet.

On our final day we did not get to walk at all.  Well not much anyway.  It was time to take another train journey for the short trip into Aix en Provence.  I have a feeling that the French conductors were on the look out to see if Karyn could break the seat changing record.

Tomorrow it will be back on the bikes for a crack at Le Tour.

Pictures from the walk


From my perspective, the only heaven of interest is right here on earth.  While Noosa comes close, I think we have just found a slice of it in Italy.  It just takes a bit of effort to get here.

I have always said that stairs are your best friend.  I used to run them in the high rise buildings in my days working in the city.  It was a great way to stay fit and break up the monotony of the sometimes mind numbing nature of the public sector.  Why choose the lift when stairs are available?  There are no lifts in Vernazza, just lots of stairs.

We are in Cinque Terre, characterised by extended terraces whose edification started in the 12th century, and five villages that cling to the cliffs on the West Coast of Northern Italy.  The area has been declared by UNESCO as a patrimony of Mankind.  It is also a National Park and a very special place visited by millions each year.  Just think, eight million in August alone.

For centuries the only transport between the villages was by track and lots of stairs.  The tracks and stairs are still there, well some of them anyway, but most of the millions are ferried in by train and boat.

We arrived by train, walked down the main street with our packs on our back and were greeted by our host outside the local gelato shop.  Roberto is as brown as a berry and has a cigar permanently attached to his mouth.  Not sure whether the sun or the smoke will get him first.  Then we started to climb.  It was at this point that I was very grateful for the back pack.  You should see those with their wardrobe on wheels trying to negotiate the climb.  Up through the back alleys of Vernazza, in through a large green door, more stairs and then out onto an open balcony.  We were right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Med.  We had arrived at our apartment.  Well almost.  To get to our abode, we went through another door, climbed down a cross between a ladder and a staircase and arrived in a room built into the rock face.  It was fantastic and was to be our home for the next five days.  Karyn said she never wanted to leave.

But leave we did.  Every day we would venture out into the mountains, climb lots of stairs and then drop down into a village for a swim in the ocean and a taste of the local food produce.  The weather has been absolutely perfect.  We are in heaven.

The view from our balcony is straight into the Med.  If I was stupid enough to jump, I would hopefully land in the water at least 30 metres below.  There are a number of boat moorings just outside the small Vernazza harbour that I have taken some interest in.  Just for old times sake.  They are the locations where cruising yachts tie up for varying lengths of time.  As I watch, I go through the tasks to be performed in the process.  It is a long list.  I then go through the process of what it would take for the inhabitants of the yachts to come ashore.  It is another long list.  The possibility of getting very wet is high.  The swell from the sea has been increasing each day and the yachts lurch about like pendulums.  I am thankful we are on dry land and all I have to do is walk down a few stairs to have a bite to eat and a beer.  Karyn is not so sure.

It finally came to our last day to go for a walk.  We decided to head up the hills into the mountains and take the high alternative track.  This is the non tourist trek and it was absolutely wonderful.  We were alone in the mist and the beautiful vegetation.  The return journey from Monterosso via the much used coastal track was like a conga line.  Cinque Terre is in danger of being loved to death.

The other problem is that Cinque Terre is in danger of falling into the water.  In October 2011 a wild storm lashed the coastline and much of the landscape was washed away.  The main street of Vernazza became a river of mud and rock and lives were lost.  It is still in recovery mode and many of the tracks are closed.

It is now time to pack and leave this little slice of heaven.  We are heading back into France for another adventure in the Alps.  I think we are going by train, though the way Karyn keeps looking at the yachts, she may have an alternative plan.

As we depart our little hole in the cliff face, I notice that the harbour has turned into a washing machine from the increased swell in the Med.  All the tiny boats have been stored on dry land in the market square.  There is not a yacht in sight.  Yes! we are going by train.

Pictures of Italy


Doing the laundry while travelling is just one of those undertakings that is essential, but generally unwelcomed.  I like to save it up and give it one big hit.  In contrast, Karyn washes as she goes.  Quite often, I arrive at the basin to do the shave or teeth thing and find wet ones occupying the space.  She also has this special expanding clothes line that straddles the length and width of our accommodation and transforms into a lethal weapon for unwary wanders of the night.  We actually left it behind in one of our hotels.  But, quick as a flash, the basic ingredients were acquired and another garrotte was created in its place.  A skill Karyn apparently learnt in primary school?  I always thought Acacia Ridge was a tough area.

We were in Brugge, following our epic biking adventure, and the time had come to cleanse the kit.  Thankfully, Karyn had some technical stuff to do on the computer, so I made a dash for the local laundry.  I usually find these places quite daunting, though on this occasion managed to get the washing on its way with a minimum of fuss.  Feeling quite chuffed, I sat back and leafed through the local junk mail.

“Excuse me, but do you speak English?”  I turned and found that I was being greeted by another Australian.  This was amazing, a woman asking a man for directions on what to do in a laundry.  What was also amazing was that within a few minutes we had not only sorted out her washing but told each other our total life story. Isn’t it funny how that just seems to happen sometimes?  Well it does to me anyway.

She was originally from Phillip Island and went to Boulder, Colorado to study Karl Jung, and never left.  I can understand that, as Boulder is known as one of the great wellness cities of the World.  She was travelling through Europe with her partner.  When I mentioned that we had just finished a bike ride through the Western Front, she told me that her father had been in WW2 and was a veteran of the Tobruk campaign – a rare breed indeed.

The tears welled as she recalled the pain of a childhood living with the secrets of war.  Her dad was an obsessive stickler for being on time.  It wasn’t until his latter years that he revealed that if he was late, soldiers lost their lives.  I wonder how many other people are out there still living the wars of their family members.

Washing completed, it was time to move on.

The airport in Brussels was packed and Karyn and I were sitting at gate 51 awaiting our departure to Florence, via a brief stopover in Rome.  The Alitalia flight attendant at check in had assured us that the plane was on time.  We were warned to check this, as Alitalia airline, like many things Italian, was not known for its efficiency.  At the allotted time and on the call of the PA, we rose to take our place in the line up.  It was at this point that Karyn noticed that ROME had been replaced by NICE on the sign above our gate.  Confusion reigned and would be passengers started wandering around in all directions scratching their heads.

When in doubt, ask.  So I decided to approach the young attendant at the desk and seek some clarification.  She was busy.  I waited.  She was still busy and continued to ignore me.  I waited.  Eventually, she sighed and gave me this look.  It wasn’t a good one.  “Excuse me, but is the flight to Rome still departing from gate 51”?


As she returned to her work, I thought I detected a quick gaze to the heavens and a whispered “sweet mother of Jesus!”  I was going to enter into a deep theological discussion about the sense of appealing to someone who hadn’t been around for a few thousand years, or who may not have existed at all, but decided to leave it for another day.

The problem was eventually sorted by the lovely attendant who we met on our check in, and we were herded into a sardine tin with wheels for the quick journey to our flight.  I think I was still recovering from the onslaught and without looking, sort solace in Karyn’s hand beside me on the bus rail.  As I stroked her fingers, I was quite surprised to find the hand withdrawn rather quickly.  Somewhat miffed, I turned and found that the withdrawn hand actually belonged to a young Italian gentleman in a suit and a three day growth.  We both coughed and spluttered a bit, and did that macho thing of a few deep Haw Haws!  I was also just about to reveal my true masculinity and discuss the results of The State of Origin football game when we were rescued by the end of our journey.  Karyn just cracked up and was no help whatsoever.

Eventually we did arrive at our destination in Florence, but the planned encounter with our hosts at the apartment was somewhat delayed.  After the shuttle from the airport to the train station, we couldn’t find the right local bus stop and wandered aimlessly around with packs on back for what seemed hours.  It was at this point we debated the merits of having a driver stand at the airport with our name plastered all over a white board.

Following frantic text messages, we finally made our connection and were eventually delivered into the loving arms of our hosts, Allesandro and Azadeh.  They were just wonderful and showed us the ropes of the apartment as well as advice on anything and everything in relation to Florence.

As a result, Karyn is now planning an encounter with ‘The David’ tomorrow at the Galleria dell Accademia.  I have told her that she shouldn’t bother as she gets to see the equivalent on a daily basis.  For some reason, she just cracked up again.  So I guess that there will be no chance this encounter will be missed.  I might have to go along as well and see what all the fuss is about.

Oh, and by the way, our apartment in Florence has a washing machine.



A collection of photos from the bike ride

Proof the girls rode the cobbles Villers Bretonneux 1 %

Here is some proof we really are tackling the dreaded cobbles of France

Rod riding up Kemmelberg

It Seemed LIke a Good Idea at the Time

Well, somebody must have thought it was a good idea at the time, as they actually tried to carry it out.  It was to be just a bit of a diversion to slow down the build up of the enemy into the area around the Somme River on the Western Front during WW1.  The Australians were ordered to capture the third line of enemy trenches in a place called Fromelles.  It was to be their first action in Europe following the disaster of Gallipoli.

After capturing the first two lines of trenches, they went looking for the third.  The problem was that there was no third line and the Aussies were left completely exposed.  Somebody stuffed up badly and they were slaughtered.  Before the first day was out the Aussies had lost 5533 killed or wounded.  This was twice as many casualties as the landing at Gallipoli.  Definitely not a good idea.  Things didn’t improve much for the remainder of the war and the Aussies went home in November 1918 leaving 64,000 dead soldiers behind.  Out of a total Australian population of only 4.5 million at the time, this was a monumental disaster.

What was a good idea was that we see this whole area called the Flanders Fields on our road bikes.  I had no desire to sit in the comfort of an air conditioned tour bus with my name tag on, and be forced to take part in sing alongs.  These musical sojourns into the past would only be interrupted by brief ventures into the elements to check out some of the 1000 war cemeteries that dot the area.  I met one crusty old naval man from Australia who was on such a tour and as he went by he whispered “If they make me sing one more song, I am getting of their F…ING bus”.

So, I contacted a bike touring company in the UK called “Skedaddle” and they were happy to come on board with a plan.  Dave Compston, our sensational guide, and his lovely wife Toni, ventured into the area in February (freezing) and Dave rode most of the route we would take.  There are six of us in the group from Australia and together with Dave and Toni, we are travelling in Northern France and Belgium.  It is June, and it is still cold.  I can’t imagine the conditions in winter and fighting a war.

It also seemed like a good idea at the time, that while we were here, we should try out some of the sections of the classic one day professional bike rides of the area.  In this case, I mean the Tour of Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix.  After the third section of cobbles and completion of the infamous Trouee d’ Arenberg (aptly known as The Trench), I noticed that with the constant vibration, I had removed a large section of skin from the inside of my left hand.  I wondered at this point as to whether it was such a good idea after all.  We managed to complete a fourth section and then wisely decided to leave the remaining twenty-three sections of cobbles involved in the race for another day.  I understand now why the Paris-Roubaix is aptly called “The Hell of the North”.

Not to be outdone, we then moved to Ypres in Belgium and had a crack at some more cobbles. This time it was the dreaded Kemmelberg climb, the infamous part of the classic Ghent-Wevelgem race.  Mt Kemmel is one of the highest points in Belgium and the site of many battles in WW1.  Over 120,000 soldiers lost their lives fighting over this hill.  Thankfully today, the only fighting is on a bike and up the final cobbled section at 23% incline.

There is however another hill that we did climb on our bikes that was much more important.  It is a place called Le Hamel.  While it’s not a big hill from a cycling point of view, it is still quite substantial if you were on foot and being shot at.  It was the hill that marked the beginning of the end to this terrible conflict and it involved two good ideas.  The first is that Monash, an Australian General, was given command of the Australian forces for the first time.  And the second was that he actually developed a plan with an emphasis on saving as many Australian lives as possible.  It worked and the battle was over in 93 minutes.

On our final day we rode about 100k, took in the last of the battle fields around Ypres and then tackled the Kemmelberg climb for one last time.  Toni and Dave presented us with a wreath that we laid at Menin Gate as part of the nightly ceremony in memory of the fallen.  Apart from the four year break during WW2, this ceremony and the playing of the haunting “Last Post” has been performed at Menin Gate every evening since 1929.  It was very moving.

In all, it has been estimated that 17 million (10 million military and 7 million civilian) lives were lost during WW1.  What a waste.  As one historian noted – “The one lesson we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”.  This undertaking was definitely not a good idea.

It was however a good idea to come on this adventure and it will go down as one of the greatest experiences of my life.  My thanks go to “Skedaddle”, for believing in the idea, Dave and Toni Compston for making it happen and Martin, Betti, Ken, Erica and the lovely Karyn for their wonderful company.

Rod Lees

French countryside, courteous drivers, and so many war graves

Day 2 of our bike trip around the battlefields of the First World War was easier going – flat and only approximately 60kms (as opposed to the 90kms of hilly terrain through the Somme yesterday).  Some of the worst statistics for deaths in any one battle though as we visited Fromelles, Australias first battle on the Western Front where over 5,300 died in one day.


The Journey Begins

It was 10:00am on Tuesday morning and I was ready to leave and raring to go.  The last of the jobs on my extensive pre departure check list had been ticked – PACK.

Karyn was out.  Not sure where, so I phoned to check that she would be home in time for us to leave for our trip.  Following assurances that everything was under control, she eventually did arrive, and I was greeted with the usual – “I’m running a bit late”.  “What’s new” I thought.  Then the calmness of my day was shattered with 45 minutes to pick up, when Karyn decided that we should do another load of washing.  How was this possible?  We had spent the last week cleaning every single item in our possession.  We left with clothes still dripping on the air dryer in the laundry.

Our pick up was Viv, one of our bike buddies.  She wasn’t taking us to the airport, but the movies.  Yes, the movies.  Karyn had arranged a fundraising night for her Zonta club on the same date of our flight, and as she was President, she, actually WE, just had to be there.  Movie over, duty done, transfer of luggage into another car, courtesy of Sam and David, and off to the International airport.  It was a good thing we had a late flight.  We were heading to Europe, via a few days in Hong Kong.

Last time we went to Europe, we flew cattle class with the expressed desire to upgrade every trip courtesy of our frequent flyer points.  All to no avail.  It was cattle class every step of the way.  This time we were a bit smarter and decided to pay for Premium cattle class.  The seats are bigger, the leg room longer and the food supposedly better.  At double the price, you’d expect something really special, but the seats were still seats.  Now this may be ok if you are a back sleeper.  The body can accommodate.  I’m a side sleeper, (actually a left side sleeper as the right side doesn’t work that well, courtesy of multiple broken bones from my less than hallowed rugby league career).  Seats and side sleepers just don’t work.  As we exited the plane on arrival at Hong Kong airport, I noted with interest that Business class has BEDS.

We spent our time in Hong Kong, wandering the streets in a dazed sleep deprived state.  We were determined to wait until it was dark before hitting the sack.  Honk Kong was spectacular, clean, friendly and a shopper and foodie nirvana.  The highlight for Karyn was the afternoon tea at the Peninsular Hotel.  Very old world and very expensive.  For me it was the History museum.  Without putting too fine a point on it, in relation to the Opium wars and most other events of the time, my ancestors, the British were bastards.

The flight to Paris was a repeat of the first, only longer.  This time, I decided to replace attempted sleep with movie watching.  The movies were great, with ARGO the standout. But I was still in a seat.  It’s actually difficult to decide whether going premium cattle class is worth the extra expense.  It’s a little like hopping on an eight thousand dollar road bike after riding one at half the price.  Do you really notice that much difference?  Now, Business Class has beds.  That’s different.

Another early morning arrival into another International airport.  This time it was Paris and the extensive police presence, all armed with automatic weapons, reminded me that we were in a very different part of the World.  We fought our way through the crowded airport, the train journey and the metro, to our hotel for the night.  Karyn and I are still carrying backpacks – Two each actually.  The big heavy one on the back and the lighter day rucky on the front.  We are actually quite mobile, though a point worth noting for future reference is that everyone else seems to wheel their luggage around and carry nothing.

We are now safely embedded in our Paris Hotel room waiting for it to get dark so we can finally hit the sack again.  Karyn describes our room as a cross between a disco and a brothel.  The lighting and the decor are something to behold.  We do have great views however and it does have a REAL bed.

Tomorrow is day one of our bike ride to the Flanders fields.  We are going to visit some of the forty six thousand Australians who didn’t get to come home after WW1.  And here is me carrying on like a pork chop about the various levels of comfort on international flights and hotel rooms.  Rather interesting perspective isn’t it?